In the wake of the Ebola and Lassa Fever outbreaks in Nigeria and the larger West African region, the work of “public health disease detectives” more formally called field epidemiologists, has increasingly come to light. Field epidemiologists are the foot soldiers in tracking and analyzing disease outbreaks before they become widespread, and their work provides valuable information that can be used to determine not only where the next outbreak might happen, but how it may be prevented.
They are trained to gather medical and health information from the field, from research or from historical data. They analyze the cause of disease outbreaks in order to help treat existing diseases and prevent future outbreaks. They use their findings to develop public health initiatives and to discover how diseases originate and spread and how they can be treated. They are thus invaluable in protecting the public from the spread of infectious diseases.
The organisation tasked with training these disease detectives in Africa is the African Field Epidemiology Network headquartered in Kampala Uganda but with operations in 33 African countries including Nigeria. Field Epidemiology and Laboratory Training Program (FELTP) are typically run within the Ministries of Health . The oldest program in Africa is the Zimbabwe program created in 1994. Subsequently, FELTPs have been implemented in several African countries as a strategy to create a public health workforce that could holistically operate surveillance and response systems for different infectious diseases. In Nigeria, the FELTP was established in 2008,. Nigeria FELTP (NFELTP)is a collaborative effort between the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), Federal Ministry of Health (FMoH), Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development (FMARD), University of Ibadan, Ahmadu Bello University and the African Field Epidemiology Network (AFENET). The program is supported by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The NFELTP has three distinct tracks, the medical, veterinary and laboratory tracks, and trains applied epidemiologists with an emphasis on the “One Health” approach. According to the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention , “One Health recognizes that the health of people is connected to the health of animals and the environment. The goal of One Health is to encourage the collaborative efforts of multiple disciplines-working locally, nationally, and globally-to achieve the best health for people, animals, and our environment.”
Why is training according to the “One Health” approach important?
The One Health approach is important because 6 out of every 10 infectious diseases in humans are spread from animals. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) sees One Health as ‘a holistic vision to address complex challenges that threaten human and animal health, food security, poverty and the environments where diseases flourish’.
The approach recognizes that although diseases do not always originate with humans, as we come in contact with our environment, the potential to transmit disease is increased. Examples of diseases that affect human beings but originate with either animals or the environment include Avian influenza (bird flu), Meningitis, Polio, and Lassa Fever and Ebola. Taking these factors into account when tracking and analyzing the causes of disease helps epidemiologists have a clearer picture of how diseases are spread and as a result allow better preventative measures and controls to be put in place before disease spread gets to epidemic levels.
The benefits of training using the One Health approach include early detection of threats and a timely, effective and rapid response; more effective disease control and biosecurity measures, often related to infectious diseases; a cost-effective reduction in disease transmission and incidence, and cost savings through sharing resources; and finally, a reduction of disease risk for humans and animals.
In a bid to create a platform for our “disease detectives” (epidemiologists) and public health physicians to share their scientific work with the larger public health audience, the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) and NFELTP will host their 2nd annual scientific conference in Abuja from the 5th to the 7th of July 2017. The Conference will be held at the Transcorp Hilton Hotel, Abuja.
The theme of the conference is “Strengthening One Health through Field Epidemiology Training.” Dr Patrick Nguku of NFELTP points out the rationale for this year’s conference. “This year’s conference theme is borne out of the need to demonstrate utility of the One Health approach beyond training. Institutionalization of one health in disease prevention and control efforts in the Ministries of Health and Agriculture will help in addressing important public health issues at the human-animal interface. These include, but are not limited to, zoonotic infectious diseases, food safety and antimicrobial resistance.”
He said that the conference will give field epidemiologists an opportunity to share their professional work with the wider public health audience. “NFELTP residents, graduates and other public health experts will highlight findings from their applied epidemiology field activity projects which include outbreak investigation, surveillance, secondary data analysis and planned protocol-based studies. This will emphasize the applied nature of training towards using field epidemiology to solve pertinent public health issues.”
The NCDC, which is a co-covener of the conference, coordinates the response to the challenges of public health emergencies and enhances Nigeria’s preparedness and response to epidemics through prevention, detection, and control of communicable and non-communicable diseases.
Dr. Chikwe Ihekweazu, CEO of NCDC said the conference is important because “Field Epidemiologists are at the heart of all that we do at NCDC and this conference will enable us bring together the science and practice of the work that we do”.
There will be a pre-conference One Health meeting on July 3rd and 4th. The objective of this meeting is to review all One Health efforts in the country and plan on how to best coordinate these efforts and ensure that all the One Health (OH) goals are achieved.
The One Health approach will allow Nigeria’s disease detectives to better protect us all from potential epidemics. We hope that this conference will strengthen the efforts of both the NFELTP and NCDC towards that goal.
To register for the conference please click here. (Kindly note that the conference fee is ten thousand naira (10,000) for participants who are not Residents and five thousand naira (5,000) for Residents without presentations.)